The Traders


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Ross Murdock, or rather “Rossa,” stood in front of half a dozen historians and cultural experts for inspection.

“I think you are lying. Who are you really?”

Aiyana Zheutlin shouted at him in a language few would understand in the 21st century, a language understood by Bronze Age Beaker traders 4,000 years ago on an island that would eventually be called Britain.

“I am Rossa, a trader. I travel with my companion Assa. See, here are the markings of my clan.” Rossa offered the necklace made of wolves teeth, and a thin leather strap tied with intricate knots as evidence of his authenticity.

The test went on for more than three hours and this was only the second day of his week-long final exam. Only a perfect score earned you entrance into the past. Even a single mistake meant a failing grade. Murdock was amazed that Ashe or any of the other temporal teams could pass these “inquisitions.”

“You did well, Rossa. Your accent has really improved.” Zheutlin was still speaking to him in the Beaker tongue even though the test had been over for forty-five minutes. Murdock hadn’t spent this much time with a women in months. He had been beginning to think that Operation Retrograde was run solely by men. Then he realized the truth. Women were never considered as candidates for time travel and his only exposure to people during the first weeks at the base were the temporal teams and soldiers.

The reason was obvious once he thought about it. The eras in which they traveled to were harsh and primitive. Disputes were settled by the knife or spear. For the most part, women were considered little more than property, and a woman wouldn’t command respect enough to access information sources a male trader or smith would gain.

That was too bad because Aiyana Zheutlin was more of an expert on the historical, cultural, and linguistic context in which Murdock would be living than he would ever be.

Now that Murdock was more advanced in his training and had earned trust, he was able to go into more areas of the base. He found out that there were nearly as many women here as men, but they were almost always in administrative or support positions. Zheutlin was head of the History department and had written the testing program Murdock was now undergoing. He figured she saw him as just another subject, which again was too bad, because he enjoyed her company, and not just in the way he enjoyed Ashe’s.

“I’d better be going, Aiyana. Plenty of studying before tomorrow’s cross-examination.”

“Then you’d better hop to it, Rossa. We’re getting out the thumb screws and warming up the rack for your next session.”

“Aren’t those toys a little advanced for the Bronze Age?”

“Okay, then how about hot brands on the back or lashes with a whip?”

“That would be just about right.”

“Take care, Ross. Keep studying.”

Murdock noticed her attitude toward him softened for a moment. Was it just human compassion knowing that he was going on a dangerous mission soon or something else?

Murdock had been assigned to new quarters along with Ashe. This was standard procedure for candidates about to make the trip back. He and Ashe slept in an environment that simulated a typical camp of traveling Beaker traders. The customs, language, clothing, hair styles, everything about his role had to become second nature to Ross, as it had to Ashe.

Ashe wore the colors of a master trader while Ross would appear to be his apprentice. This would provide just a little flexibility should Ross make some minor gaffe. Fortunately, Beakers were widely traveled and tolerant of variations of custom and appearance. Those they traded with, in Britain it was mostly for tin, had experienced Beakers native to many different areas of the Indo-European region, so anything a bit off about Ashe and Murdock would be attributed to them being foreigners.

Murdock’s week of hell was finished. He’d passed. No one seemed surprised about it except him. Final preparations were being made. In spite of all the training, Ross still felt both excitement and apprehension about his first trip through time.

There was actually more than one time gate, but at Operation Retrograde, only one of them was used most often. Kelgarries gave him a tour of what he called the “big industrial gate.” It was only used to send large pieces of equipment back.

There were also portable gates which could be set up at remote sites off base. Those would be used once a Forerunner ship could be located and they needed a jump point geographically local to the artifact.

While the majority of time trips focused on different periods in the Bronze Age, it was thought that the Forerunners had first visited Earth much earlier in history, perhaps as long ago as 9,000 BCE. But the Forerunner artifacts that had been discovered, both by their side and presumably the Soviets, dated to around 2,000 BCE, which either meant that the Forerunners had been visiting our planet continually for thousands of years, or that for some reason, caches of their technology had been stored away during that later period.

Time travel was a strange thing. Technically, anyone who travels in time also travels in space. Even going back a single day means, if you want to end up in the same geographic location, you have to take into account the Earth’s movement in orbit around the Sun, our Solar System’s movement through the Milky Way galaxy, and our galaxy’s progression outward from the center of the universe. Otherwise you end up dying in outer space.

Even to someone as intelligent as Murdock, it seemed an insurmountable and even an insane task.

“Here’s how it works, Murdock.” Major John Kelgarries, the commander of Operation Retrograde was showing him the primary time gate. “The eggheads have developed a method of creating a point-to-point link from this side of the gate to the same geographic location at any point in the past. It’s like those wormholes in the old science fiction TV shows that were supposed to let a spaceship travel from one end of the galaxy to the other in a few minutes, only once you pass through the gate, you go back in time thousands of years in just a few seconds.”

“Who invented the thing, Kelgarries? I mean, who could think up a way to do something everyone thought was impossible.”

“We’re never supposed to say his name, but he was a Soviet defector. The other side got to him after he arrived here and for a while, we thought we’d lose him. The docs put him back together enough for him to tell us what the Reds had him working on. At first no one would believe it until our science people ran the numbers through the large array data center at Los Alamos. The numbers checked out. Time travel was possible and even practical. The Soviets built it and then so did we.”

“Kind of like the A-Bomb. We invented it and then the Soviets stole the secret.”

“Yeah, I guess. Frankly, I think time travel is a lot bigger weapon. If we ever decided to try to change anything, I don’t know what kind of mess we’d create.”

“How do we know the Soviets haven’t changed history, Kelgarries?”

“That’s just it, Murdock. We don’t. We only know that we can’t take the risk ourselves.”

“How did we learn about the Forerunners?”

“Once we found out the Soviets had time travel, the CIA and the rest of the spy agencies dedicated every resource they had to discovering what they Reds were using it for. It cost a man’s life to get out the first Forerunner artifact from behind the Iron Curtain, plus where and when the Soviets found it. After that, we started to put two and two together.”

“What do you think we’re going to find, assuming we get to a Forerunner spaceship before they do?”

“That’s the part I can’t tell you, Murdock. No one on any temporal team knows, not even Ashe, so don’t bother asking him. But I can tell you it’s big, really big. In fact the fate of the whole damn planet depends on it.”

Ashe and Murdock stood in front of the gate. They had all their gear with them, which really wasn’t a lot. Only Ashe had an actual bronze blade. Bronze knives were expensive so only master traders and clan leaders possessed them. Even the arrows in Murdock’s quiver were tipped with flint.

The standard gate was big, maybe ten meters across or so. The physical gate was supported by two metallic pillars which bent in and then were joined to a horizontal piece at the top about five meters across. It looked etched, like someone took a knife and carved intricate patterns into it, but those were the circuitry configurations which caused the temporal transit field to form and then organize in such a way that it would make the link to the exact point in the past required.

There was no physical gate on the other end, but the field was still active, so as long as you could make it back to where it was, you could return to the present.

Murdock saw the Quartermaster approach Ashe and give him a small packet. His senior partner stowed it away in his clothing.

time travel

Image: BBC News

He didn’t have to ask Ashe what it was. Only a limited amount of current day technology could be taken into the past, not because of any limitations of the gate, but to prevent contamination of the past. No firearms of any kind could go with a covert temporal team, but both Ashe and Murdock had micro transceivers planted under their skin that would let an extraction team find them if need be.

As the junior team member, that was all the modern tech they allowed him. He knew Ashe had a little more, but he didn’t know exactly what.

“Ready, Rossa?” Ashe was speaking to him in the Beaker tongue.

“Yes Assa.”

Then the large room was suddenly devoid of personnel except for the two time travelers. A voice came over the loud-speaker. “Activation of the field in ten seconds. Nine, eight, seven…”

The control voice went through the countdown to zero and then the gate started to hum and glow. Abruptly, accompanied by a large crackling sound, the field formed. The moment before, there was just air and the two traders could see through the gate to the other side of the room. Now there was some sort of opaque energy discharge, white, pale blue, green, colors shifting and popping.

“Proceed through the gate.” The control voice was impassive, as if telling the two men what was on today’s lunch menu.

Ashe looked at Murdock and then walked forward. Murdock, the pit of his stomach dropping through the floor, walked beside him toward and then into the field.

Kelgarries was right. It only took an instant. Momentarily, Murdock lost all sense of location, as if he had been disconnected from reality, and then he finished crossing the threshold. There were still technicians on the other side, support people, plenty of soldiers securing this side of the gate. Ashe and Murdock had just traveled 4,000 years back into history but they were still in the Arctic, thousands of miles from their destination.

Ashe pointed to the submarine bay and the USS Thetis. She was a Proteus class submarine, nuclear powered, could stay submerged for months at a time, but was smaller than conventional military boats and was manned only by a dozen officers and crew.

“Welcome aboard the Thetis, Murdock.” Captain Amos Lewis smiled and shook Ross’s hand, then he nodded at Ashe. “Welcome back, Gordon.”

“Thank you, Captain. I assume we have our usual quarters.”

“Finest aboard the Thetis, Gordon.” Then he addressed both men. “You might want to get your gear stowed. We’ll get underway in about ten minutes.”

In the days ahead, Ashe and Murdock continued to speak to each other as Beaker traders. They maintained their equipment and tried to keep out of the crew’s way, not so much because they might interfere with operations, but to avoid losing their edge. The two needed to speak, act, and think like Beaker traders and too much exposure to the Naval personnel around them could impair that effort.

“We’re about ready for you gentlemen to depart.” Captain Lewis stood away from the periscope. “It’s all clear out there and we’ve got about an hour before dawn. We’re just about to surface and deploy your boat.”

The dugout was actually crafted here in this time and conformed to contemporary standards. It would be enough to get Ashe and Murdock to shore. Achieving that, they would hide it away for their return trip and hope no one could find it.

Britain was still sparsely populated, so the chances of someone coming across their boat was remote.

On the surface, after their boat was deployed, Ashe and Murdock put their gear inside and carefully stepped down and then sat. “Remember, we’ll pick you up in exactly thirty days at this same time and location. Do not be late. we’ll maintain periscope depth until we get your signal.”

“Yes, Captain. As always.”

“Good luck Gordon, Murdock.”

With that, Ashe pushed their ancient craft away from the nuclear submarine and he and Murdock began rowing toward shore.

Two hours later, the traders were walking on a well established path toward their Trading Post. The sun was up, but there was a heavy overcast, so it was as if it were still before dawn.

“Interestingly enough, the Post isn’t far from Dover so the artifact you purchased from the smuggler should be relatively near.”

“How long until we get there, Assa?”

“We’ll arrive by mid-morning, Rossa. Just enjoy the clean, fresh air and the scenery. This is an orientation visit to acquaint you with the area and our people at the Post. I’ll introduce you to the local clans as my apprentice so they will become familiar with you.”

“Hard to believe we’re within a few kilometers of Dover, Assa. It all looks so different.”

“I know. My grandmother used to live near here, or rather, she will in the future. I remember her telling me about the Nazi invasion in ’44 and how the German army nearly occupied Southern England before the Americans and British repelled them.”

“Yeah, I read about that, Assa. It was a near thing. The Nazis almost succeeded in their plans for conquest. What finally stopped them was after we nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they knew we could do the same thing to Berlin.”

“I smell a wood fire, Rossa.”

“That’s not exactly uncommon around here, it is?”

“There shouldn’t be any camps near here, and I think this fire is big.”

Assa and Rossa doubled their pace but it still took another hour to reach the fire’s source.

“The Trading Post, Rossa. It’s been burned to the ground. All our men are dead.”

If you want to read this series in chronological order instead of the order in which these stories were written, start with:

The Recruit. This story introduces Ross Murdock and why he volunteered for a mysterious military mission at a secret base in the Arctic.

Then continue reading by going to:

Escape. After discovering how dangerous Operation Retrograde is, Murdock and another volunteer plan to escape the base, but each man has their own personal agenda which could lead to freedom or death.

After that, read:

The Artifact. This is the original piece of flash fiction that led me to consider refactoring Andre Norton’s (Alice Mary Norton’s) 1958 science fiction novel The Time Traders.

For the first since his training began, Ross Murdock leaves the arctic base and finds proof that aliens visited our world 4,000 years ago.

Today’s story depicts Murdock’s first trip back in time with Ashe and ends in disaster. I hope you’ll also notice some further historical anomalies I’ve injected into today’s tale. The mystery is building.

The next story in this series is The Curse of Lurgha.

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